Arab spring, Salafi winter? Israel and the new Middle East

An attack on the Israeli embassy in Cairo in September. EPA/Khaled Elfiq

Israeli Defence Minister Ehud Barak has described his country as “a villa in the middle of a jungle”.

But Barak’s “jungle” has become increasingly dangerous. What happens to the villa when a wind of change sweeps through? What can be made of Israel’s reaction to the Arab unrest, which has destabilised both a tepid friend (Egypt) and a bitter enemy (Syria)?

Security has emerged as a fundamental theme in the Israeli response to Arab unrest. The Israeli leadership has overlooked the popular nature of these revolutions to argue that the fall of regimes in North Africa and (potentially) the Middle East is actually bad news for Israel.

Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu quickly established a connection between the spread of regional unrest and the Palestinian conflict, arguing that Israel is as insecure as it has ever has been. The new regional reality was therefore exploited to motivate future Israeli intransigence vis-à-vis the Israel-Palestine peace process.

Islam became the preferred lens through which to analyse the situations in Egypt and Syria. The election of Mohamed Morsi in Egypt and the possibility of a radical regime in post-Assad Syria have become part of the same narrative: an Arab Spring equates to a Salafi winter.

It seems a bit premature to associate post-revolutionary transitions in the Middle East with the emergence of fundamentalist regimes throughout the region. Nevertheless, a few questions have to be asked about the impact that regime change in Cairo and Damascus might have on Israeli security.

Egyptian ties

Israel’s security concerns about post-Mubarak Egypt largely turn on the 1979 peace treaty. The religious disposition of the Morsi administration may well lead to the cancellation of the treaty and a deterioration of ties with its southern neighbour.

The Egyptian government’s mild response to the sabotage attempts at the Arab Gas pipeline and the attack on the Israeli embassy in Cairo are the most visible indications of tolerance of anti-Israeli action.

Since the fall of the Mubarak regime, gas pipelines to Israel have become a target. EPA/STR

But there is not much for post-revolutionary Egypt to gain from abandoning the 1979 treaty. Morsi knows this, and has not listed the deterioration of ties with Israel among his foreign policy priorities. Adopting an anti-Israel posture would attract the disapproval of the United States and ultimately sever military ties between Washington and Cairo. US military aid, estimated at US$1.3 billion in 2012, is vital for the Egyptian security apparatus.

Given that post-Mubarak Egypt is a result of the alliance between the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), which took control of the country after the fall of Mubarak, and the Muslim Brotherhood, a 180 degree foreign policy shift would have to represent the interests of both components of the Egyptian elite. The unilateral withdrawal from the 1979 peace agreement certainly does not fit this bill.

Better the Syrian you know

When examining the Syrian conflict, the Israeli government appears to have applied the same logic, frequently flying the “Islamic threat” banner.

Many officials alerted the domestic population and Israel’s international supporters to the threat posed by the consolidation of a radical regime in post-Assad Syria. As a consequence, the government has not supported in any substantive way the anti-regime forces operating in the Syrian context.

In the spirit of “better the devil you know”, Israel expressed a clear preference for the preservation of the al-Assad regime. Incidentally, this policy posture placed the Netanyahu government alongside the Islamic Republic of Iran among the (direct or indirect) supporters of the Syrian regime.

Instability has spread to Damascus, raising more security concerns for Israel. EPA/Anadolou

This proposition unveils the underlying preoccupation of Israel’s assessments of the Arab Revolutions.

The transformation of parts of the Arab world has not led to a thorough reassessment of Israel’s standing in the Middle East. Although longstanding certainties – Egypt’s lukewarm friendship and the cold war with Baathist Syria – have collapsed, the Israeli government is unwilling to revise its regional posture.

Foreshadowing an Islamist future for the region puts the religious players in Egypt and (potentially) Syria in the same category as Hamas – a group with which Israel simply does not interact. If ineffective in the diplomatic arena, this narrative is perfectly tailored for Netanyahu’s domestic audience.

From Netanyahu’s point of view, the villa remains a safe haven only if the “jungle” is a dangerous place.